David Carlson: Spoiling the moment

There is a scene in Archibald MacLeish’s play “J.B.” that wouldn’t be so sad if it weren’t repeated so often.

“J.B” is MacLeish’s modern retelling of the Biblical book of Job, and, in this scene, J.B’s family is enjoying Thanksgiving dinner.

Joy is the emphasized part of the word.

J.B’s children are really into the festive spirit, laughingly calling out the part of the turkey that is their favorite.

The laughter builds and builds as they dive into the meal until Sarah, J.B’s wife, interrupts by saying that they have all forgotten something, and that something is all important.

What has been forgotten, Sarah insists, is that the children and J.B. have forgotten to thank God for everything that the family has.

In her view, the family has forgotten to be thankful.

J.B responds by inviting his wife to look, really look, at the faces of the children. Can’t she see that their joy is the greatest expression of their gratitude?

I side with J.B., not Sarah, in this controversy.

Often, when I have given a gift to a child or am present when a child receives a gift, I see the absolute joy on the child’s face until an adult ruins the moment by saying to the child, “Did you say ‘thank you’?”

The joyous glow on the child’s face disappears, eclipsed by guilt at having done something wrong, for failing to do something important.

Smiles of delight disappear, and often what follows are awkward seconds before the child manages, sometimes with head down, to utter those two words “thank you.”

Of course, no one wants a child to be ungrateful. But I doubt that forcing a child to say “thank you” has anything to do with instilling gratitude. Instead, children learn to say “thank you” whether they are thankful or not.

The words become a meaningless mantra, a throwaway line.

But worse, forcing children to say “thank you,” whether they are grateful or not, teaches children very early that the feelings of others, especially adults, are of more value than their own feelings.

The child isn’t taught to be grateful, but to pretend to be grateful.

Welcome to adult life, little one, where you’ll learn to hide your true feelings almost every day.

Let’s return to the scene of a child receiving a gift.

Are children the ones who need to change, or are we the adults the ones?

Are adults really fooled when, after seeing a look of disappointment on a child’s face as he or she opens their gift, the parent nervously interjects with “Say thank you, Billy” or “You’re going to really love this gift, Julie”?

Are our feelings as adults so fragile that we have to force children to be inauthentic, to wear a mask?

What J.B. in MacLeish’s play tells Sarah is that a child’s face is, by nature, an open book. J.B. looks around the Thanksgiving table and reads the joy on his children’s faces.

There are no words to match that joy, so he sits back and lets that joy wash over him.

But even if Sarah can read her own children’s faces, she believes their joy isn’t enough.

And so, Sarah ruins the moment.

God save us from acting like Sarah and teaching children to be proper instead of real.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].

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